In 2014, I missed Suburban Jungle so much that I decided it was time to return to it. But I couldn’t just pick up with Tiffany, Leonard and the crew seven years later. Tiffany’s story was finished, and as she was the star that the rest of the comic orbited around, there was nowhere for it to go except to just sort of string along as a zombie franchise. So I decided instead to for a “next generation” idea, and Rough Housing was born.
I freely admit, I had very little idea what I was doing with it at first, so I just tossed in a bunch of things that I liked and figured it would gel. Possibly not the best way to start a new project, but it was also true of the original Suburban Jungle and that seemed to go fine. My initial vision for Rough House was a lot more pure OTT zaniness and parody. Issue two pretty much exemplifies this, with the S.S. Plot Device and “The _______ of Cangrejo Diablo!” being typical of the kind of jokes I had in mind.
But for whatever reason… I just didn’t love it. Scripting was constantly a chore and instead of wacky hijinks I kept wanting to write shippy or emotional moments. By the end of issue three and well into the scripting for issue four it would be fair to say that Rough Housing was having an existential crisis behind the scenes. This resulted in the scripting for issues four and five taking forever as I wrangled with it.
I knew from the beginning of the “Best Bodies Contest” arc that the big payoff moments were Parker getting up on that stage, and Leonard’s final decision. But I also clung to the idea of wacky hijinks, envisioning lots of sabotage at the contest, Charity doing ridiculous things to stall Leonard and Morrison, and so forth. But while the emotional moments flowed quickly and easily, for the hijinks I ended up with whole pages of script that said things like “FUNNY SCENE HERE.” Fortunately I was able to lean on my wit to come up with gags on a page-by-page basis, but it was a frustrating way to run a railroad.
But as I was working on issue five, two important things happened. First, I began streaming my art sessions, enabling me to get real-time feedback from some of my most engaged readers and see what they responded to and why. Second, I was watching and falling in love with K-On! and examining how I responded to that and why. And when I spotted the overlap, everything clicked.
See, here’s the thing: K-On! hits the sweet spot perfectly. At its core, it’s a remarkably subtle, character-driven story about connections, loss, savoring the moments of life, and so much more– but it sneaks all this past you by being adorable and laugh-out-loud funny. But the humor isn’t the GIANT MONSTERS ATTACK humor of Love Hina or Sgt. Frog. The girls spontaneously forming a cheerleading squad for Ritsu as she tries to eat a receipt they don’t want their teacher to see gets me every time, but it’s also a completely realistic moment.
This was the eye-opener for me. The original Suburban Jungle was very comfortable with the GIANT MONSTERS ATTACK style, with its very tenuous fourth wall, aliens hiding in the sun’s corona, and all that jazz, but when people talk to me about it today, what do they talk about? How Tiffany, Drezzer, or Leona impacted them personally. The connection they felt to Mikey and Wally. How they identified with Dover’s codespeak.
The people in my streams, similarly, talk a lot about how adorable Charity is and wanting to give her a hug, being proud of Parker’s overcoming his fears, or how fun it is to see Rufo wanting to make out with anything that moves.
In other words, the parts that were coming the most easily, are the parts that work the best anyway. XD So! Lesson learned.
The influence of K-On! has already worked its way into rewrites and page layouts. This Langley/Rufo moment, for instance, was not in my original script. It was inspired by the chemistry between Ritsu and Mio and tossed in to spruce up an otherwise dull page, but it’s just as great a moment for these two goofballs.
But the lessons I learned from K-On!, and the realizations I made about Rough Housing along the way, are going to have big repercussions moving forward. Issue six will see a shift away from “this issue’s funny premise”-style writing to focus more on the characters’ goals and fleshing out generally. I also hope to move away from being quite so much focus on Charity to being more of a proper ensemble with stories about the rest of the cast. (Who is Bounce? What does he do all day? What’s the deal between Langley and Rufo?)
This may lead to eventually changing up the cast somewhat, if existing characters aren’t working or new characters might work better. We’ll see. Rough Housing is sure to evolve over the next issues, but I finally feel like I understand it now. Giant monster attacks and wacky hijinks are not and were never going to be the strength of this comic, and really aren’t the strength of my writing generally. It’s the characters and connections, and the humor that naturally arises from them, that will make or break it.
Giant monster attacks may still show up from time to time, who knows? But where before I was saying “A giant monster attacks! What do the Rough Housers do?” I’m instead going to start with “The Rough Housers want X. How does that pan out?”
You’d think after being a writer for thirty-mumble years, I’d have learned that lesson by now. I guess I just need periodic reminders.